A liberal arts education can give students much more than rote skills. It can (and should) give them empathy, a way past themselves, a world imminently more alive.
I work as a technical writer for a company whose office shares the floor with an arts school. The other morning on the elevator a student said, “God, I hate school.” Although I had taught a college writing class an hour before, at first I chuckled. Then I gave it some thought.
That morning, I was over caffeinated introducing my students to profile writing. I paced in front of the room, raving about anecdotes, creating an angle, and quotations. The class stared at me as if I were holographic, and so I asked if they were tired. There were grumblings and raised hands. It was the most participation of the morning.Although I’m merely a decade older than my students, the reality is the distance in perception is as significant as the Gobi Desert. Somewhere along the way, I transitioned from student to teacher or adolescent to adult. So now I recognize how little I know about anything.
In his 2005 commencement speech, “This is Water”, the late David Foster Wallace discusses the purpose of a liberal arts college education and the reality of life after college (“boredom, routine, and petty frustration”). As college moves into the rearview mirror, a simple but seemingly castigatory lesson is learned: few people care what you’re doing and days are filled with mundane responsibilities. Whoa!
Wallace writes: “…everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe…We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive…Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.”
Feelings, however, are only as real as we want them to be. To the student who gasped about hating school, ask why you’re feeling that way and what you’re going to do about it. I went to college because it was expected. That’s not a good reason, but it got me there. Eventually I took over the reins (even if I’m not quite there yet). But I needed to be steered. In high school, I was busy smoking pot and being the center of my universe.
My parents (God bless them) took me to at least a dozen colleges. Tour guides and administrators sold the luxuries of the school: a state of the art student center, athletic center, and library (all of the colleges seemed to have these). Mark Edmundson, in his 1993 essay, “Uses of a Liberal Arts Education,” writes about this shift towards entertainment over education: Edmundson’s university “is looking more and more like a retirement spread for the young…Engraved on the wall in the gleaming aquatics building is a line by our founder, Thomas Jefferson, declaring that everyone ought to get about two hours’ exercise a day. Clearly even the author of the Declaration of Independence endorses the turning of his university into a sports-and-fitness emporium.”
This shift towards entertainment reinforces our default setting of self-importance instead of challenging it. Today, the greatest accomplishment of the recipient of an undergraduate degree is to recognize that self-centeredness is a choice. Wallace, in his commencement, states the real “value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your own head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.”
The reality you create is dependent upon the spectrum of your empathy and the severity of your delusions. A struggle with contentment is a struggle with reality. Wallace states that “If you’re automatically sure you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.” Even Wallace is quick to dilute the bit about the oneness of all things (“Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true”), but he gets at an important truth: if it’s about me all of the time, then I am destined to be miserable.
So if college is about choosing how to think, and gaining empathy, and more people than ever are getting diplomas, we ought to be moving towards a more empathetic culture.
After the GI Bill, increased enrollment numbers altered the ways in which colleges attract students. Edmundson writes that “What students and their parents wanted had to be taken more and more into account…creating more comfortable, less challenging environments, places where almost no one failed, everything was enjoyable, and everyone was nice.” If your perceptions are not challenged, how can your ideas evolve? If you are always comfortable, how can you honestly engage with your understanding of the way the world truly is, not the way in which you want it to be? If you are not exposed to the spectrum of thinking about any given subject, how do you discover who you are?
You must decide that an honest interrogation of your values is worth fighting for.
It has taken me one undergraduate degree, two graduate degrees, six years of teaching college classes, an immeasurable amount of positive and negative experiences, and numerous failed relationships to recognize that my system of meaning is dependent upon me, and me alone.
Just because I’m aware, doesn’t mean I’m successful. Most often, I ignore the choices of thought and arrive at my default setting. But on the best of days, I trade in the lens of self-centeredness and glance at the world through more empathetic eyes. I’m learning that it is possible.
So next time that the barista seems to be moving too slowly and you’re running late or the lady in front of you at the pharmacy seems to be playing 20 questions with the pharmacist, ask yourself if you know the reality of that person’s life. At the very least, it’s interesting to consider. But at best, reality becomes realer.
And to the student in the elevator, and to my students with the glazed eyes: I understand.